She walked 300 miles for the sake of the Lakes

Julia Robson and fellow conservationist Alyssa Armbruster hiked from Milwaukee to Lake Superior to support the cause of protecting Great Lakes water and ecosystems
Ozaukee Press staff

Julia Robson developed a passion for conservation early in life, but she never imagined it would include a 300-mile hike.

As a grade school student in Miami, Robson, who is now a member of the board of directors of the Friends of the Cedarburg Bog, made a presentation to the school board about doing something to help burrowing owls on her school’s playground. She was able get the financial support of a local humane society, and the board agreed to put up fencing to help protect the birds.

“I took scientific data and made a case for something and made it change,” Robson said.

That feeling, she said, was compelling, but it also gave her a false sense that conservation was somehow easy.

Her family moved to Kenosha County when Robson was in her pre-teens, and she later earned bachelor’s degrees in biological sciences and conservation and environmental sciences.

After reading the book, “The Death and the Life of the Great Lakes,” by Dan Egan, Robson said, “my eyes were opened to all the threats of the Great Lakes and freshwater face today. I felt awoke as a scientist.”

Even Robson, with her environmental education and a job as assistant natural areas coordinator for Milwaukee County, didn’t know about many of the issues the book detailed.

“If I was unaware of this, what does that mean to the general population?” she asked.

Robson approached Alyssa Armbruster, a Milwaukee County Parks seasonal employee at the time.

Armbruster grew up in Jackson and became interested in the environment from her grandfather, who did backyard birding. An environmental science class at West Bend East High School sealed the deal that she would work in natural resources.

Robson and Armbruster didn’t know each other well but shared the same belief in the importance of freshwater conservation.

 “The minute she said we should do something to raise awareness for the Great Lakes, I didn’t care what it was going to be. I knew it was going to be a good idea,” Armbruster said.

Robson’s initial idea was to hike around all the Great Lakes, but Armbruster reminded her she had a job. The project was scaled back to a 343-mile hike in August 2017 from Discovery World in Milwaukee to the Porcupine Mountains on the shore of Lake Superior.

Robson was in her late 20s and Armbruster in her early 20s at the time. They had done day hikes and a few overnight trips, but nothing longer than 50 miles.

What they planned, however, was more than a long hike. During six months of planning while they both managed full-time jobs, Robson and Armbruster interviewed scientists, farmers, fishermen, activists, politicians and even Egan, the author.

The goal was to increase awareness of the plight of the Great Lakes. The pair planned to blog about their trip and do YouTube videos, but then a film company, Rayni Day Productions, offered to shoot a movie pro bono instead.

“The Worth of Water: A Great Lakes Story” was born.

Robson and Armbruster carried 30-pound packs on their backs, hiking on trails, including the Chequamegon National Forest Trail, and forest service roads.

They never left the Great Lakes Basin, although they struck up conversations with people who didn’t know they lived in the basin or that it meant surface runoff ultimately ended up in a Great Lake.

Early in the hike, they camped in Bratt Woods Nature Preserve, one of the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust’s properties along the Milwaukee River. They stopped at Harrington Beach State Park in the Town of Belgium one night, as well as Kohler-Andrae State Park before making it to Green Bay. Then, the two traveled inland to make their way to Lake Superior.

They got a refill of food every four or five days from family members who would meet them at checkpoints. Sometimes, people would offer a bed to sleep in. They once stayed in a casino hotel but cooked rice on their camp stoves in their rooms because they were too tired to make it to the buffet.

While foot pain was a given, Robson’s biggest challenge came when she strained her Achilles tendon early in the trek. She said she made the “rookie mistake” of wearing hiking boots the first week before switching to running shoes. As she was “bawling her eyes out” at High Cliff State Park near Appleton, she got pointers that helped from a physician who was following their trip online.

For Armbruster, a rare 90-degree and humid day in the Upper Peninsula was her biggest obstacle. Overheated and dehydrated, the two walked 22 miles that day — two more than planned — to find a flat spot to camp that was safe from bears.        

Farther north, Robson had an enjoyable encounter with an animal she admired. When she laid down to take a nap, she noticed a branch’s “really beautiful pattern” three inches from her mouth. It turns out it was a fox snake, harmless to humans.

“I picked her up and she was gorgeous,” she said.

For her part, Armbruster was thrilled to sight a pileated woodpecker. One flew by after Robson drummed her walking stick against a tree.

“I just think they’re so unique. They’re the same size as a crow and really elusive,” Armbruster said.

Robson and Armbruster picked up followers online along their trip and got a bump when actor Mark Ruffalo, originally from Kenosha, Tweeted about their effort.

Fundraising that started with a $5,000 goal grew to $10,000 before they started and kept growing, as did awareness of freshwater challenges.

After a month of walking, the two made it to Lake Superior.

“I can’t tell you how good it felt on our feet. It was such a relief,” Armbruster said.

The two young women finished the adventure as best friends. “We call each other trail sisters now,” Robson said.

“I ended up coming out of the this project with a lifelong best friend,” Armbruster said.

It took three years to make the film, with both women participating in the process and Robson as the director.

While the movie follows the two on their trek, it also takes a larger look at the Great Lakes’ health, including the time Lake Erie was declared dead and how the federal Clean Water Act in 1972 helped limit pollution.

“My generation didn’t come through the ’60s and ’70s. We had no idea how bad it was back then,” Robson said.

Now, invasive species and non-point source pollution — such as farm runoff and fertilizer — are major threats to the lakes’ health, affecting fishermen and the economy, as well as various species. The film shows some of the actions taken to help, including no-till farming and planting cover crops, and tells the story of the piping plover, a bird recovering after being endangered.

“Stories like these give people hope in a world where we are overwhelmed with all that is going wrong. If we invest in restoring and protecting the environment, we can see and benefit from the good changes that come with it,” Robson said.

Now, Robson is a conservation biologist for Waukesha County Parks and Land Use, a job that covers many facets of the environment.

Armbruster is a resource management technician for the City of Fort Collins Natural Areas in Colorado, which she calls her dream job.

Another adventure to advocate for conservation isn’t off the table for Robson and Armbruster. Robson said they’ve talked about “doing part two.”

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